Since I first read Bill’s fantastic Lightning Falls, I’ve gotten into PAW (Post-Apocalypse World, for the uninitiated) fiction in a big way, thanks to the indispensable Kindle Unlimited virtual lending library. There’s some great, entertaining stuff to be found in the genre, although some books on the topic read like little more than overlong shopping and honey-do lists for survivalists and preppers. Useful for some in a purely practical sense, maybe, but not exactly what I’m looking for in a work of fiction.
NC Reed’s Fire From The Sky series—now up to volume nine or ten, I believe, every one of which I’ve read—is particularly gripping stuff, as is everything else he’s written…all of which I’ve also read and loved.
Reed is an extremely skillful writer, especially so when it comes to creating believable, very human characters and exploring the relationships between them. He’s a Tennessee boy, as are the characters in the Sanders saga, and his dialogue is as real as hot cornbread in a cast-iron skillet. Southern dialect is actually a surprisingly difficult thing to pull off convincingly; many otherwise fine authors have tried and failed embarrassingly at it. Reed’s only real problem is by no means an unusual one these days, one that isn’t really his fault either: the editing is a little, ummm, off here and there. It’s by no means horrible or frequent enough to set your molars a-grinding in fury over it, mind, but it can be a mite distracting occasionally. That minor quibble aside, though, I can’t recommend Reed’s stuff highly enough.
Matt Bracken’s Enemies Foreign And Domestic trilogy, which I’ve mentioned enthusiastically here before, certainly deserves another mention. If you aren’t familiar with his excellent work, well, you need to fix that. Fran Porretto’s brilliant Spooner Federation Saga books are worthy of mention too, although they don’t fit so neatly into the PAW pirgeonhole as the others.
The past few days I’ve found myself totally engrossed in what’s looking like a real masterpiece of the PAW genre: Dogsoldiers, by a fella yclept James Tarr. Tarr, it turns out, also co-authored Carnivore, a good Gulf War memoir by Bradley IFV commander Dillard Johnson. I was sent a copy of Carnivore for review purposes when it first came out, although I can’t recall now if I ever did get around to posting a review here or not.
Dogsoldiers is some damned tasty stuff, a truly outstanding book. The tale is set in near-future Detroit, centering on a pivotal battle in the decade-long civil war waged by a slowly-weakening US federal tyranny against the ragtag, mostly disorganized, and chronically underequipped resistance of freedom fighters referred to in the title. Tarr’s writing is top-notch; the story isn’t marred by any of the uneven or downright sloppy editing that frequently blunts the impact of ebooks for some reason.
In fact, the reason I brought all this up in the first damned place is because the book struck me as plenty good enough to post some excerpts from it here. Our first passage has one of the Good Guy characters—Early, a grizzled, hardcore veteran originally from JawJa—enlightening a shavetail Dogsoldier volunteer, Jason, on some of the harsher realities of life during CW 2.0:
“Why don’t we take prisoners? Why were Weasel and George killing their wounded?”
Early looked and saw the teenager was seriously bothered. “Well, there’s two answers to that. First one is…where would we take them? It’s not like we’ve got a base. Or vehicles to transport them. We wander around, causing trouble, living in empty houses and borrowed basements, and then when the cold rolls in either do more of the same or we hol’ up with friends or relatives or in our own houses, far away from the trouble.”
“We could let them live, let the Army treat their injuries.”
Early nodded. “And that’s the other part of it. At the start of the war we let them be, tried to do the civilized thing. Let the Tabs recover their wounded. Not now. Not after ten years. Because they just keep coming back, like the tide. At this point we’ve all realized we’re in a war of attrition—that means neither side is going to surrender, the war only ends when one side has been ground down so much they’ve got no one left who can fight. They’ve had their chance. Any Tabs still fighting are either too mean or too stupid to know they’re on the side of evil.”
“And after the war? In any other war, you capture POWs, at the end of the war you send ‘em home. Which is somewhere else, a whole ‘nother country. Over there somewhere.” He waved his hand vaguely. “After World War II the Germans were sent back to Germany, where they could be Germans, and be nowhere near us. That’s not what this war is. The Tabs live here; win or lose, they’re not going anywhere. Even if they’re not fightin’, and we’re all peaceable and neighborly, they’ll still believe the same things that caused the war in the first place—socialism, communism, vegan grocery bags, twenty-seven genders, guns are evil, America has never been great, never hit back, government should be in charge of everything, all of it. That’s not peace or victory, that’s just a temporary ceasefire. Their beliefs aren’t just evil, they’re a poison, a cancer, a rot. Winning doesn’t just mean the war stops, we want to have a healthy country after all this.”
“It ain’t pretty, son. It ain’t even nice. Maybe it’s our own brand of evil. You don’ like it? Good. That means you’ve got a soul. But it’s the only way we not just win the war, but win the peace afterward.”
Naaah, THAT doesn’t sound like it has any contemporary relevance at all, does it? Pure escapist fiction, no practical reality to be found there, nossir. But this next excerpt cuts even closer to the bone that that, if you can believe it. It’s gonna be a long ‘un, so I’ll tuck it down below the fold and out of the way.
In this bit, white-hats Hannibal, Sarah, and squad leader Ed grill two Federal soldiers trying to pass themselves off as fellow freedom-fighters—unsuccessfully, as it turns out.
“Look, I don’t know who or what you think we are,” the bigger guy said, now getting a little nervous, “but we’re here to fight the Army. The Tabs. Fuck those guys if they think they can take our guns, right? A few common sense laws are fine, right, to keep the wrong kind of guns away from the wrong kind of people, but banning everything for everyone? So I can’t even defend myself against criminals? No fucking way. They went too far. So fuck those guys. That’s why we’re here. That’s why we’re all here, right?” He looked around the room, looking for support and sympathetic faces.
Ed shook his head. “You need to just stop.”
Hannibal just sighed. He was so tired. “It’s not about guns,” he told the two men on their knees. “That’s like saying wars are about flags. It’s never been about guns, it’s about freedom. It’s always been freedom. Guns have just been the bellwether, the canary in the coal mine. Governments always want to control you, and bad governments want to enslave you. They can’t do that if you have guns, so the first thing any government which has evil intentions needs to do is take away the ability of its citizens to defend themselves. That’s World History 101.” He treated the men to a dirty look. “But the gun bans were the very last straw, not the first or only, that’s what you fuckers just don’t seem to get. The last straw from a government that had spent decades attempting to control every aspect of its citizens’ lives, what they could eat, drink, drive, own. What kind of toilets they had to use, what kind of lightbulbs they had to buy. Guns were just the final line in the sand, and we finally said this far, and no further. And if you were fighting on our side, you’d know that. The only people who still think this war simply started because ‘crazy’ people wouldn’t give up their guns are the other side, your side, the same people lying to themselves about the reasons for the war, who have always had a problem seeing the reality in front of them, and who love to rewrite history.”
The bigger of the two looked back and forth between Ed and Hannibal, his eyes finally resting on Ed. “You,” he said. “You look reasonable. What are you doing? This is treason! You’re fighting against your own government. Your own people.”
Ed cocked his head. “So because they are the government, our government, that automatically makes them the good guys? Are you that blind? That ignorant of history? You’re okay with whatever you’re told to do, simply because it came from the people that are in charge? Soldiers have a duty to disobey orders they know are illegal. Doesn’t your oath of enlistment state that you’re supposed to protect the country from all enemies foreign and domestic?”
“You don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.”
“Maybe you just don’t care. Is that it? You’re just happy to pull the trigger for whoever is signing the check? Might makes right?”
“Screw you. I love my country.”
“No, you love your government. If you loved your country you’d be fighting against your government, which has turned totalitarian and fascist and is everything our Founding Fathers went to war against in the first place. And more, actually. A lot more.”
The man on his knees was shaking his head. “You’ve actually convinced yourself of that crap?”
Ed’s face flooded with heat. “The Bill of Rights,” he growled, “the entire Bill of Rights, was a complete ‘Fuck You’ to the idea of trust in government. An insurance policy. The people who wrote it had just fought off a tyrannical government—their own. Not just the Second Amendment, every amendment in there from the First to the Tenth enumerated the inherent rights of individuals, above those of government. The Bill of Rights doesn’t grant us rights or privileges, it lists the ones we have as human beings that the government has no right to take away. It flat out states the government has no authority to infringe our rights, and the Second Amendment is just there to guarantee the other nine. It’s not there so you can go duck hunting, or even so you can defend yourself against criminals—that was assumed. It’s there so that people like us don’t get ground under the bootheel of tyrants, or at least have a fighting chance, because there always have been tyrants. Always will be. Most of the Constitution is written in very plain language, but ‘shall not be infringed’ is about as plain as it gets, and only people with evil intentions could even attempt to start arguing it doesn’t mean what it says. Free men own guns, slaves don’t, it’s as simple as that. You’re fighting for a government that is trying to argue we should have no rights except for what they grant us. Besides plain unConstitutional that’s evil, pure and simple. And, if you actually took a look at the conditions that caused the colonists in America to revolt against the British back in the 1700s, those laws and regulations are nothing compared to the outrages citizens were having to endure prior to this war.”
“They didn’t even have cartridges back when the Second Amendment was written. The rifles were all muzzleloaders. And you think it gives you the right to own a machine gun?” The shorter of the two men scoffed.
“They didn’t have radio, TV, or the internet, but you folks seemed to think the First Amendment applied to those as well as pen, ink, and parchment,” Ed shot back. “At least, until you shut down the press because it was saying things you didn’t like. If you knew anything about history you’d know George Washington borrowed privately-owned cannon to equip his army to fight the Revolutionary War. Not machine guns, privately-owned cannons. That answer your question, sport?”
“This is ridiculous. And a waste of time,” the short one said, glaring.
The taller of the two nodded. “Hulce, Terrance,” he said finally, staring straight ahead. “Staff Sergeant. 732-54-5221.”
“Keeley, Robert, Captain, 689-77-4423,” the other man said. He looked at Sarah, who still stood close to them. “I’m guessing we’d be pretty valuable in a prisoner exchange.”
“You’re right about this being a waste of time,” Sarah said, and then shot both men in the head with her suppressed carbine, quick enough for the second man, Keeley, to not even have time to react. She felt speckles of blood hit her face.
So, a happy ending then. You guys are beginning to get me when I say this is one helluva great read here, right?
But as good as Dogsoldiers is, it’s also kinda depressing to read the arguments presented in the second excerpt above—arguments I’ve made here time and time again over lo, these past two decades, sometimes in almost exactly the same words, or close enough—and then realize where we all are now, today. Debate, facts, reason, history: none of it has availed us in the end, not even slightly.
Did we fail? Could we have tried harder, done more? Was the fault not in our stars, but in ourselves? Or was the Coming Unpleasantness always unavoidable, a matter more of capital-F Fate than of effort?